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AUTHORITY AND COMPUTER GAMES: How do computer games establish their authority over the player and what is the player's leeway towards it?

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Abstract

Although video games have been widely researched according to different schools of interpretation (e.g. Ludology, Narratology, etc.) to explain real life situations and vice-versa, the relation between authority and computer games still needed more attention. Therefore, this study aims at filling the research gap by investigating how does authority manifest itself in computer games and what are the options offered to the player in order to resist it. The analysis is conducted through two different approaches (Procedural Rhetoric and Qbusive Game Design), overviewing two different perspectives for authority (authority as the digital machine or authority as the game itself), focusing solely on single-player computer games. In order to do so, the study uses a qualitative approach and critically analyzes the arguments of several influential authors that have debated on the topic. The analysis identifies arguments in favor of a player that is not submitted to authority both in Procedural Rhetoric and Abusive Game Design, then gives counter arguments, identifying obedience of authority in both approaches too. Consequently, the findings reveal that as hard as games scholars try to find alternative gaming models to "free" the player from whatever tyranny in computer games, it seems to fail. Indeed, in both approaches, the player is submitted to a certain form of authority. The study concludes by making a parallel with the Milgram experiment on Obedience to Authority and suggests that the best mean for the player to resist remains critical thinking.
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AUTHORITY AND COMPUTER GAMES:
How do computer games establish their authority over the player and
what is the player's leeway towards it?
Two approaches: Procedural Rhetoric and Abusive Game Design
Dominique VINCKENBOSCH - 55193564
dvinckenb2-c@ad.cityu.edu.hk
City University of Hong Kong, School of Creative Media
18 Tat Hong Avenue, Kowloon Tong, Hong Kong
Independent Study for Dr. Olli Tapio Leino.
SM6323 - 2017 - Semester A
ABSTRACT
Although video games have been widely researched according to different schools of
interpretation (e.g. Ludology, Narratology, etc.) to explain real life situations and vice-versa,
the relation between authority and computer games still needed more attention. Therefore,
this study aims at filling the research gap by investigating how does authority manifest itself
in computer games and what are the options offered to the player in order to resist it. The
analysis is conducted through two different approaches (Procedural Rhetoric and Qbusive
Game Design), overviewing two different perspectives for authority (authority as the digital
machine or authority as the game itself), focusing solely on single-player computer games.
In order to do so, the study uses a qualitative approach and critically analyzes the arguments
of several influential authors that have debated on the topic. The analysis identifies arguments
in favor of a player that is not submitted to authority both in Procedural Rhetoric and Abusive
Game Design, then gives counter arguments, identifying obedience of authority in both
approaches too. Consequently, the findings reveal that as hard as games scholars try to find
alternative gaming models to "free" the player from whatever tyranny in computer games, it
seems to fail. Indeed, in both approaches, the player is submitted to a certain form of
authority.
The study concludes by making a parallel with the Milgram experiment on Obedience to
Authority and suggests that the best mean for the player to resist remains critical thinking.
Keywords: procedural rhetoric - abusive game design - authority - machine - rules - Papers,
Please - Cat Mario - critical thinking - ludology
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INTRODUCTION
Only since a decade is the study of video games considered as a field in its own right.
Research in the field encompasses many different aspects, such as: the genres, history, the
notions of game and play, the components of a game, the place of games in the media
landscape, the role of technology, the meaning of games, etc. However, it seems that the
relation between authority and computer games still needs to be further researched. Therefore,
this study investigates this connection between both and the alternatives for the player to
resist it.
In current literature, Proceduralism is the approach that comes back the most when searching
for authority in computer games. In reaction specifically to Proceduralism has been brought to
attention the Abusive Game Design approach. Therefore, these are the two approaches that I
chose to go by with in this analysis. In addition, in a previous research paper (Vinckenbosch,
2017)1, I had already critically analyzed the game Papers, Please (2013). Hence I will use it
to illustrate my point about authority from a Proceduralist approach, and refer to the game Cat
Mario2 (2007) for the Abusive Game Design approach.
ANALYSIS
Authority in computer games can be considered from two different perspectives. In fact, the
authority in the game can be perceived as the computer as a digital machine. In that case, the
player is subordinated to the playable artifact and by extension to technology.
The other way to consider obedience to authority in computer games would be to
acknowledge the submission of the player to the rules of the game. According to this
perspective, the player does not have any kind of freedom in her play; playing would only
mean following what the rules dictate.
These two different perspectives of authority in computer games will be overviewed in the
following analysis, through two different approaches: Procedural Rhetoric and Abusive Game
Design. Both will first be defined, then critical arguments will be presented in favor and
against the claim that there is a form of authority that the player is submitted to in computer
games.
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
1!First!game!analysis!research!paper!for!the!class!Analysis!and!criticism!of!computer!games.!
2!Available!to!be!played!online!at:!http://www.cat>mario.com/!
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Procedural Rhetoric : processes
Procedural Rhetoric posits that video games have their own values and can make political
claims about the real world. Indeed, the whole Procedural Rhetoric approach is centered
around the rules of the game, where lies its meaning. The rules (constraints) establish a
structure within which a space that the player can explore is created; this is what Bogost call
"possibility space" (Bogost, 2008). The game, through its processes, creates procedural
models that are real world's representations. By playing the game, the player explores the
possibility spaces and can interpret the procedural arguments made by the game and reflect on
them in real life (Dugan, as cited in Bogost, 2008).
Therefore, in the definition of Procedural Rhetoric there is already an argument against the
claim that computer games enforce their authority upon the player. Indeed, to interpret the
procedural arguments made by the rules of the game, the player needs to make a critical
reading of the game. These arguments are not explicitly given to her; the player will
understand them by playing the game and questioning it. Elsewhere (Vinckenbosch, 2017), I
made a game analysis of Papers, Please (2013) from a Procedural approach; therefore I will
use it to exemplify my point in this study. Papers, Please seems at first very repetitive and
boring: the game has mere graphic designs, and presents an avatar whose job is to do the
same actions every day, proposing very small options to the player. However, by keeping
playing the game, the player unveils the story behind it and what is at stake. The only way she
can understand this is through the possibilities and constraints that the game imposes to her:
every day the Immigration Officer has more elements to take into consideration and he is also
facing moral dilemmas that will impact the direction of the game. Consequently, by playing
the game, the player understands what it is about and what the game wants her to do. This
way, the player is engaging with the procedures of the game, she has to play with, around and
against them; she is playing the authority (Fassone, 2015). In Papers, Please (2013), this is
represented by the Immigration Officer that has to find alternatives by himself to contour the
customs' rules dictated by his authoritarian government (Fassone, 2014).
Moreover, Papers, Please (2013) makes claims about oppressive political regimes, illustrated
through bureaucracy in the games (which is interesting as this is a Procedural game about
Procedurality) (Vinckenbosch, 2017). The player, by playing the game, not only exposes this
ideology, but also experiences it through the simulation enabled by the representations in the
game (Fassone, 2014). Accordingly, the player can now use what the game showed her to
reflect on real life situations (e.g. to resist to authority). In that sense, the procedures in the
game allow the player to develop her critical thinking (Bogost, 2008).
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The analysis so far has focused on authority as rules. Yet, as mentioned above, computer
games' authority can also be perceived as the technology that characterizes the playable
artifacts. From a Proceduralist approach, the concept of Computer Games Exceptionalism
helps differentiating computer games from other forms of play (Fassone, 2014). This
uniqueness of computer games is to be found in their digital component, it is what makes
them interactive and allows the player to get an instantaneous feedback loop when they play
(ibid.). Actually, it used to be that players needed to know the rules of a game in order to be
able to play it (If the player is not aware of them, she cannot play the game). Yet, computers
allow the removal of the rules; players can play without being aware of them. These are the
Skill Rules that Suits (1978) refers to, in opposition to the Constitutive rules. The first kind of
rules takes the form of a suggestion or advice from the game and is beneficial for the player.
If the player does not follow them, she might just loose the game. In the example of Papers,
Please (2013) this is the proposition of upgrades for the Immigration Officer's booth (each
upgrade making the manual verifications quicker and easier for the Officer, therefore for the
player too). However, Constitutive Rules are the ones defining the only permitted means to
reach the goals of the game and that prevent the player to adopt quicker and easier behaviors
that could bring her there. Breaking theses rules immediately takes the player out of play
(Suits, 1978). In Papers, Please (2013) one hardcore rule is to not let anyone presenting
discrepancies pass the border. Anyway, in this interpretation, technology (digital media) has
the power over individuals as they rely on it to play computer games.
However, the main argument against Proceduralism is about its instrumental approach of
games that totally dismisses play and the player. Indeed, in Proceduralism it was
demonstrated that the rules are central because they hold the meaning of the game. However,
by interpreting the procedural arguments generated by the game's processes, the player is
appropriating them. On that note, Woods about multiplayer games argues "The magic within
the magic circle lies in the shared understanding of gameplay as a mediating cultural form,
one which transcends everyday reality ‘by agreement’. It is the lusory attitude itself which
most obviously informs the development of culture through the experience of circumscribed
play" (2007, 21-22). Yet, this social dimension is also present in single-player computer
games if we consider the notion of play at the center of the game: it has a rigid structure with
rules (closed system) however, the player brings inside the game a lot from the outside (her
own memories, her knowledge, her emotions, her life experience, etc.) that will enable her to
interpret the procedural models proposed by the game. Therefore, the game is a reflection of
the player who plays it (DeKoven, as cited in Zimmerman, 2003).
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Furthermore, Sicart who wrote a whole article Against Proceduralism (2011) argues that
when the player is critically engaging with the rules of the game and negotiating them, it
proves that rules are not at the center of games, but that once again play is, because
interpreting the procedural arguments made by the rules is to appropriate them for the player;
she will then adopt some particular behaviors or take some particular actions that are the
creative expression of her self (i.e. her values). In the Proceduralist approach the designer of
the game is all-powerful (the authority) as she is the one coding its meaning, while the player
is only considered as its "activator". Yet according to Sicart (ibid.), rules, mechanisms and
processes only exist to frame play, therefore players do not need any designer, they just need
an excuse to play.
Hence for Sicart (ibid.), the player is co-creator of the meaning of the game as there is a
dialogue between the system of the game and the player through play: the player brings
personal characteristics to the game but also provide. Thus while procedural games pretend to
make political, ethical, cultural claims about reality, they ignore the most important social
component of the game: the player herself. Therefore, Proceduralism by identifying games
with reason and not expression as suggested by Sicart, places rules as authority of the game
and everything else is submitted to them.
Finally, the burden of the rules in Proceduralism should also be acknowledged. In fact, it is
well represented in Papers, Please (2013) as bureaucracy: the Immigration Officer is
confronted every day to new immigration policies, new political scenarios, new tools to adapt
to, etc. He is overwhelmed by the procedures. If players only want to play for play's sake
(Sicart, 2011), then to encounter such resistance through rigid rules might be overwhelming
for the player of the game too.
Abusive game design : play
To distance games from the alleged authority of their rules (instrumentalization of the game),
Proceduralism's skeptics came with the idea of Broken Games, also called Corrupted Games,
Masocore, Pervasive Games or games with Abusive Game Design. These games are
purposefully breaking conventional modes of play in order to push the player close to her
breaking point (not beyond or else the player might give up the game), to bring her to
question the designer's intentions and open the dialogue between both (Wilson & Sicart,
2010). Only by understanding the designer, could the player play the game. These kinds of
games have been created in reaction to the current user-centric approach in video games: the
gaming industry aims to fulfill the player's needs by creating challenging games but that do
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not take the player out of her comfort zone, leading to "monologic play" which offers a one-
sided relation, not a dialogue (ibid.).
With Abusive Game Design, the meaning of the game lies in the players and play, not in the
rules of the game. Indeed, the players complete the meaning of the game by interpreting it,
which makes them co-creator of it (Wilson, 2011). From the designer's side, a successful
Abusive Game Design is when the player feels like she is fighting against a person, not a
system (Wilson & Sicart, 2010). Moreover, Malaby (2007) notes that games are built by
people, for people, which make them socially constructed. Actually, the game is only a
mediator of the dialogue between the player and the designer it is an excuse for a social
context as play as a personal activity (Wilson & Sicart, 2010). Therefore, it can be said that
Abusive Game Design questions technology as used in computer games: it does not rely on it,
quite the contrary it makes it secondary (Wilson, 2011; Wilson & Sicart, 2010).
In that context, Abusive Game Design encourages players to bend the rules of the game, to
negotiate them or even to cheat for their own needs, for what is necessary for them to be able
to go forward in the game. For instance the game Cat Mario (2007) presents a particularly
unfair design, as it gets trickier to fulfill the challenges as the game goes on and the game
keeps presenting "bad" affordances to the player. Indeed, as Cat Mario is based on Super
Mario, the player expects to play the games the same way, yet the common affordances in
Super Mario (e.g. the question mark boxes) deliver different results. Therefore, in Cat Mario
the player understands that she should not play this Super Mario-like game like she is used to
(triggering the affordances to expect a positive outcome), but rather she should negotiate its
rules (e.g. by trying to avoid all the affordances).
Therefore according to Wilson and Sicart (2011), in Abusive Game Design it is the
relationship between the player and the designer that enforces its power over the game.
However, I would like to shed some light on the abusive dimension of such designs; As
Wilson and Sicart (2010) highlight, some Abusive Game Design can lead to abusive
gameplay experiences; this type of games can make the player feel angry, ashamed, frustrated
or even in mental or physical pain and the only reason that makes the player go through these
abuses is for the sake of fun. Yet how far is one ready to hurt herself or to make a fool of
herself in the name of fun? Therefore, I would like to argue that in the case of games using
Abusive Game Design, the player is subject to the authority of fun. In that case, Abusive
Game Design really does not serve the player as suggested earlier, it traps her in a submissive
position towards the game. Although the player is co-creator of the "silly" rules that put her in
this situation and she is aware of it (Wilson, 2010), she will not move from that
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uncomfortable submissive position she is in because of fun: she trusts that games are fun (she
is being abused though).
DISCUSSION
In Abusive Game Design, players accepting to be abused for the sake of fun reminds me of
the Milgram experiment on Obedience to Authority (1974); this experiment features an
experimenter, a teacher and a learner. Under the eye of the experimenter who acts as figure of
authority, the teacher has to administer electrical shocks to the learner who does not see it but
can hear everything. The electric shocks increase in intensity, until reaching the human mortal
threshold. The teacher is asked to keep sending the electrical shocks despite the (pre-
recorded) screams of the learner and without knowing that the learner is an accomplice of the
experiment. The study found that more than the majority of the teachers would blindly obey
to authority and keep administer electrical shocks, often beyond the mortal threshold.
Abusive Game Design has been thought in reaction to the authoritarianism of rules in the
Proceduralist approach of computer games, by creating a dialogue between the player and the
designer, and by extension making games social again. However, this very design places the
player in a submissive position to fun, accepting to be psychologically or physically hurt for
its sake. This interpretation demonstrates a blind obedience to authority, just like in Milgram
experiment.
In conclusion, in both procedural rhetoric and abusive game design the player ends up
submitted to a particular form of authority, whether considered from the perspective of the
digital machine or the game itself: obedience to rules in Proceduralism, to fun in Broken
Games. As it seems like the current attempts in computer games to free the player have failed,
maybe it is for the player in general - no matter the chosen approach in computer games - to
remain aware of it. In fact, after the Milgram experiment, the best way to resist authority
appeared to be to develop critical thinking. In order to do so, the individual has to remain
curious, to cross-reference information, to ask question and reflect individually.
LIMITATIONS/FUTURE WORK
This independent study focuses on the ways through which a form of authority is present in
computer games and what are the different options to resist it. In order to keep this study
short, the qualitative analysis only takes in consideration two approaches (Procedural
Rhetoric and Abusive Game Design) including two different perspectives (authority in
computer games as the machine and as the game itself). Also, it focuses only on single-player
computer games.
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Therefore, further research should include other approaches (e.g. narratology), include
multiplayer games and use a quantitative approach with data in order to complement the
findings of this study.
Moreover, the present study finds that a parallel can be drown with obedience to authority in
other fields that could bring some interesting components in order to deepen the
understanding of this topic.
CONCLUSIONS
Since the study of video games has become a field in its own right, computer games are
therefore an integral part of anyone's environment. Current studies amongst others show their
impact on real life and vice-versa. Therefore, this study investigates how authority is
represented in computer games and what are the options for the player to resist it. To do so,
research articles from influential authors in the field have been collected, then analyzed from
two different point of view: Procedural Rhetoric and Abusive Game Design. For both of these
approaches the same pattern is used: the analysis first delivers arguments supporting the
assumption of the absence of an authoritarian power in this approach, second it challenges it.
The analysis gives some leads to answer the study's research question How do computer
games establish their authority over the player and what is the player's leeway towards it?
The findings reveal that in both approaches, the player is submitted to a certain form of
authority. In Proceduralism it is through the processes of the game that ignore the player and
play, while in Abusive Game Design that is centered on play, there is a tyranny of fun that
places the player in a submissive position. Furthermore, the study suggests that since the
player cannot seem to escape authority in computer games, the best mean to resist it is to
develop her critical thinking.
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REFERENCES
Games
Pope, L. (2013). Papers, Please. 3909 LLC. [PC]
Anon. (2007). Cat Mario. Chiku. [PC]
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Bogost, I. (2008). “The Rhetoric of Video Games". The Ecology of Games: Connecting
Youth, Games, and Learning. The MIT Press. 117140.
Fassone, R. (2014). "Authority and The Machine. Thoughts on The Role of The Player in A
Proceduralist Reading of Gameplay". University of Tampere. 11.
Fassone, R. (2015). "This is video game play: video games, authority and
metacommunication". Comunicação e Sociedade. 37-52.
Malaby, T. M. (2007). "Beyond Play: A New Approach to Games". Games and Culture. 95-
113.
Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority: an experimental view. Harper & Row. 277.
Sicart, M. (2011). "Against Procedurality". The Online Videogame: New Space of
Socialization. 14.
Suits, B. (1978). "The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia". University of Toronto Press.
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Vinckenbosch, D. (2017). "ESSAY #1 - Game analysis "Papers, Please" Authority vs.
Moral". 6.
Wilson, D. (2011). "Brutally Unfair Tactics Totally OK Now: On Self-Effacing Games and
Unachievements". GameStudies.org.
Wilson, D., Sicart, M. (2010). "Now It’s Personal: On Abusive Game Design". Center for
Computer Games Research. 8.
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Woods, S. (2007). "Playing with an other: ethics in the magic circle". Cybertext Yearbook.
26.
Zimmerman, E. (2003). "The Magic Circle". In Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals.
The MIT Press. 105-11.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Article
Full-text available
Resumo Gregory Bateson claims that all play acts should be primarily understood as meta-com­municative. In other words, playing a game implies being able to transmit and receive the meta-message ‘this is play’, which establishes a psychological frame among the players. I will propose a radical reading of Bateson’s theory in the context of video games; specifically, I will attempt at analysing the characteristics, specificities and implications of the message ‘this is video game play’. I will contend that the specific language through which video games convey this message is that of their rules, the inescapable limitations posed by their computational and digital nature. In other words, playing a video game is always, at least to a degree, playing a game of meta-communication with, against and around a video game’s hard-coded rules. Finally, I will propose a close reading of the game Papers, Please and contend that Pope’s work engages in a significant reading of the inherent reflexivity of video games, deliberately portraying their authoritative na­ture and communicative potential.
Article
In his introduction to the 2005 issue of the journal Game Studies, Jesper Juul describes computer game studies as being in "a state of productive chaos", populated by researchers who have come to the area from a variety of disciplines and who all hold "wildly contradictory assumptions" (2005b). In the light of Juul's assertion, it is appropriate to identify two central assumptions which I bring to the following dis- cussion, neither of which is particularly contentious, but which indicate some of the reasons for this undertaking. My first assumption is that games, both digital and analogue, are a particularly unique aesthetic and cultural form with an as-yet untapped potential to "help us under- stand the reality that surrounds us and… what it means to be human" (Frasca 2001, 114). The interactive and simulative capabilities of the game form do, I believe, suggest new ways in which issues of critical and ontological significance might be addressed. In short, I have faith in the potential of so-called 'serious' games. The second assumption I bring to this article is that there is a relationship between digital and analogue games which is sufficiently close to warrant both being of ludological interest. Whilst the convergence of the computer medium with the game form is clearly a driving force behind the current upswell of interest in ludology, I believe it is far too early in the piece to dismiss the qualities of games which have persisted over centuries and whose media demands are somewhat less technologically dependent. Quite naturally, some of the early theorising that has been undertaken in the field of ludology has attempted to draw together the varying types of game in order to answer the question of what exactly it is that we study. However, as the notion of a distinct ludological approach
Article
In this paper, we introduce the concept of abusive game design as an attitude towards creating games – an aesthetic practice that operates as a critique of certain conventionalisms in popular game design wisdom. We emphasize that abusive game design is, at its core, about spotlighting the dialogic relation between player and designer.
Papers, Please. 3909 LLC
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Pope, L. (2013). Papers, Please. 3909 LLC. [PC]
Authority and The Machine. Thoughts on The Role of The Player in A Proceduralist Reading of Gameplay
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Fassone, R. (2014). "Authority and The Machine. Thoughts on The Role of The Player in A Proceduralist Reading of Gameplay". University of Tampere. 11.
Against Procedurality". The Online Videogame: New Space of Socialization
  • M Sicart
Sicart, M. (2011). "Against Procedurality". The Online Videogame: New Space of Socialization. 14.
ESSAY #1 -Game analysis "Papers, Please" Authority vs
  • D Vinckenbosch
Vinckenbosch, D. (2017). "ESSAY #1 -Game analysis "Papers, Please" Authority vs. Moral". 6.